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The Future of Trade Shows

Normally, summer months are busy for everyone in our industry. Vendors are running from trade show to trade show while retailers are excitedly placing orders and managing busy shops back home. This year, due to COVID-19 and sheltering-in-place orders that have caused trade show cancelations and stores to close, the way we do business has shifted and we’ve been left no choice but to adapt to this changing landscape.

Trade shows as we know them, which have seen their own shift in recent years with the advent of digital trade show platforms and soaring costs to exhibit that don’t match the return on investment many companies need to justify a presence, might be in jeopardy. But the gift and home industry is built on resilience and flexibility as well as relationships and community. While the trade show experience might not look the same anytime soon or possibly ever again, it is adapting to meet the needs of the ever-changing marketplace.

 

The New Trade Show Experience: Digital

“The coronavirus pandemic created a forcing function for retailers and brands alike to reconsider the best and most efficient way to do business together in the absence of traditional trade shows,” says Marcelo Cortes, co-founder and CTO at Faire, a wholesale marketplace that empowers small business owners and independent brands to buy and sell wholesale online.

“With crowded events raising new concerns about health risks, and store closures creating tighter budgets, it has highlighted the need for reliable digital tools that provide remote buying opportunities,” adds Cortes. “In the future, as the functionality of these digital tools continue to improve, we’ll see brands and retailers rely less on seasonal in-person events that require costly discretionary spending.”

Bob Maricich, CEO of International Market Centers, which hosts AmericasMart Gift & Home Market, IMC High Point Market and Las Vegas Market, admits that while nothing can replace the in-person buying experience and the excitement of market, he sees emerging technologies as a complement to that in-person experience.

“A recent survey of IMC’s buyer and exhibitor universe shows that digital platforms will become an increasingly important element for market preparation, product discovery, and order processing,” Maricich says. “As such, we see the lines between physical and digital marketplaces continuing to blur, allowing buyers and sellers to connect wherever and whenever they wish to transact.”

Something to remember, though, is that trade shows are not just about buying and selling. They’re about community.

“One of the overlooked benefits of attending trade shows is the chance to be with other like-minded businesses,” says Jennie Misner, owner of Venture Imports, an importer, wholesaler, and retailer of fair trade products from Kenya.

“The networking that goes on at shows can be helpful from a business point of view, but psychologically as well. Running a business can feel lonely at times, so it's nice to bounce ideas off of other business owners, and just to commiserate with each other! Now that we don't have trade shows forcing us to be together, we have had to be intentional in keeping up with each other.”

 

How To Do Business Today

 For both brands and retailers, trade shows afforded them the opportunity to establish contacts and relationships within the industry. So how do companies help translate that in-person experience online?

“Our mission at Faire has always been to empower our customers to chase their dreams, and during the COVID-19 crisis, that has meant building products to help them navigate a new path forward,” adds Cortes.

Faire recently announced the development of new tools intended to build upon their online marketplace to bring the sense of community and connection of trade shows online to create year-round buying opportunities. These tools include:

  • Live streaming: Brands can host live stream video to hundreds of retailers to debut new products and launch new collections. Retailers can ask questions through live chat and checkout directly.
  • 1:1 appointments and collaborative cart building features: Brands can invite retailers to live video appointments to walk through product and merchandising options. During the appointment, brands and buyers can easily create orders together with collaborative order building.

IMC introduced a new digital innovation division, IMC_di, in January to develop a seamlessly integrated omnichannel B2B e-commerce platform for the apparel, gift, and home furnishings industries served by IMC’s physical markets. IMC’s new digital marketplace is expected to launch by year-end.

“In the meantime, as the COVID-19 crisis has created more need for enhanced online resources for our industry, IMC has leveraged existing digital tools – such as ShopZio and Catalog Connexion, which were acquired as part of our IMC_di launch – to help buyers and sellers get back to business,” notes Maricich. “Linkable directly from our market websites, these tools enable exhibitors to maintain visibility, showcase available products, and transact business until physical markets resume.”

Independent retailers are trying to run a business while figuring out how to place orders they can’t touch or feel for the important fall and winter seasons. Rachel Hershinow, the owner of Stella, an independent gift and apparel boutique in Evanston, Illinois, admits that she’s been trying to take it day by day because otherwise she becomes completely overwhelmed. The problem, she says, is that buyers need to forecast and purchase or commit several months in advance for merchandise. Yet, without a decent road map based on previous trends and history, she feels like she’s navigating in the dark. Not to mention Hershinow is a “touch and feel” kind of buyer and that’s not possible to do online. “It’s going be super challenging to buy for fall and holiday without the ‘tradeshow treasure hunt’ that I have relied on for so many years,” Hershinow says. “I will have to buy very thoughtfully and lean, which is opposite of my nature which is to go by gut (which has served me well in the past).”

Just as inventory management will be hard for retailers, it’ll be a major challenge for wholesalers, too, since they have to project future inventory needs as well as lead time. “It's difficult for us to predict how much inventory we're going to need,” Misner admits. “Even if we could accurately forecast how the pandemic will affect sales and buying patterns in the months ahead, we may be struggling with a lack of cash flow due to loss of sales thus far.”

Products that require extended lead time due to where they come from or because they’re handmade may become harder for retailers to source once they’re able to buy again, according to Misner. “This will be important to keep in mind for those attending trade shows that have been moved to October, for example,” she adds. “Products may no longer be available in the quantities they desire that late in the season.”

Meanwhile, wholesalers are re-evaluating how they introduce products and considering ways to make it easier for retailers to explore their lines and place orders for the upcoming seasons. In past years, dZi Handmade would launch new products at the trade shows first as an incentive to attendees, and then post them online. “Now it’s going to be the reverse as the online market place has become the primary one for sales,” says Mac McCoy, CEO and founder dZi Handmade, a company that imports fair trade gifts and home accessories from India and Nepal.

McCoy also works with the Gifts of Nature rep group, which serendipitously just launched their new e-commerce site featuring all 50+ lines, so he couldn’t be more delighted to have their team marketing his company on their new virtual showroom platform. “We’ve also just on-boarded with Faire.com, and now that we have all those b2b materials organized we’re going to join the RepZio.com platform,” he adds. “I’m expecting these steps to help us bridge to 2021 when I expect the primary trade shows to slowly come back. It might not be what it used to be, but maybe the combination of a traditional and an expanded virtual market presence will equal more than what we previously had… one can only hope!”

While all these online tools are great for many retailers, some buyers like Hershinow still favor paper catalogs, line sheets, and cookbooks to help them visualize the layout of products. Email pitches tend to get buried in the sea of regular daily emails, she says.

WorldFinds, a fair trade wholesaler that works with women artisans in India and Bali to produce handmade jewelry and accessories, is trying to meet their retail customers wherever they are: tradeshows, marketplaces, online, print catalog, and even on one-on-one Zoom calls any time. “And sample boxes!” shares Kelly Weinberger, founder of WorldFinds. Similarly, retailers have been experimenting and adopting new methods to sell inventory to customers at home.

“During this time, small businesses have demonstrated their ability to remain agile and innovative by adopting new savvy tools and strategies to help them compete and continue to grow their businesses,” says Cortes. “On the retailer side, tactics typically deployed by big box chains like curbside pickup, buy online pick up in-store, and selling through social media, are now being used by local retailers on a large scale. As of June, according to our survey of 100,000 independent retailers, 78 percent are offering now curbside pickup, and 68 percent are investing more in new or existing online channels. On the brand side, we’re seeing incredible creativity in how entrepreneurs are pivoting – from a beauty and wellness brand creating hand sanitizer, to a gift brand designing face masks.”

Hershinow has been hosting Facebook Live sessions where she showcases half a dozen to 10 dresses, outfits or jewelry, each associated with a number. Like a host on a television show, she shares details about each product, turns it around so viewers can see the shapes and cuts, and then encourages customers to comment or message her with the item number they want to purchase.

“All of us have had to be incredibly creative during this time,” adds Weinberger. “Our retail partners have really hustled by offering curbside pick-up, personal deliveries, and selling on Instagram Stories and other social platforms. So many of our independent retailers are really resilient and will adapt to ordering in other ways if trade shows look different or aren't an option for them this year.”

 

Relationships More Important Than Ever

Without physical trade shows, many won’t be seeing familiar and friendly faces this year, as Misner mentioned earlier. Understandably, this is difficult for many who feel like attending trade shows is like a reunion of sorts. For others, the reality that they’ve had to suddenly and abruptly change course without a road map is unsettling.

 

Independent representatives are feeling it, too

“I feel sad because customers, businesses and vendors including myself have been thrown off our regular paths and we have all struggled over the last months to find our balance,” notes Gina Lempa of Gina Lempa & Associates in Elgin, Illinois, an independent sales representative covering the Chicagoland area. Still, Lempa feels hopeful because she has seen how resourceful everyone is in getting right back to business and creating new ways to reach their customers through social media, email marketing, and a variety of educational courses online.

“I believe virtual showrooms will be a must,” adds Lempa. “Venders must provide a virtual way for customers to ‘see’ what’s new. Buyers must be patient and willing to work the virtual showroom online similar to how they invested their time and walked and worked the showrooms in the past. Some retailers have had great success with Facebook Live events and I think wholesalers might want to take notice and offer some type of similar option. Recently, one of the companies I represent started a Private Retailer Only Facebook group so we can exchange information more openly and easily.”

Teresa Hendricks, owner and goddess of Lucia’s World Emporium and Lucia’s Imports, agrees that online purchasing and selling will become even more prominent in the coming months and years. She owns two stores, one in Kentucky and the other in Michigan, as well as a wholesale fair trade business that works directly with artisans in Guatemala. She used to do the trade show circuit for a decade but pulled back after 2018 as attendance dwindled. Instead, she decided to switch course and focus on online sales and opening up a second retail store.

“I’ve seen wholesalers have to kind of sit back and regroup during the shutdown,” Hendricks says. “We all kind of had to be mindful of our customers who were unable to open their doors. At the same time, I watched many of our retail partners, including myself, up their online presence. Many of us had great success with generating sales with Facebook and Instagram Live. Our communities of customers were really showing support for the local businesses.”

 

What’s Next?

Admittedly, no one really knows what the future holds as there are so many unknowns.

“I think everyone is looking at all possible scenarios as to how this year might play out,” says Weinberger, who is planning to stay in close contact with her trade show contacts, artisan partners, and retail partners and hopes to figure it out together with open dialogue.

Misner feels we must be realistic about the constraints on consumers both now and as we come out of this and hopes the time we have to reflect on our business this year will bode well for us in the future.

“We know what it's like to come back from a trip or vacation with all sorts of ideas about how we're going to change our lifestyles when we return,” she says. “We also know how quickly that changes once we are faced with our everyday reality. During this time of being at home, many people are re-evaluating their lives and priorities. They may be thinking about how they want to buy more meaningful gifts, about how they want to support their communities. And they might have the time now to research how to do that.”

 

Some companies already are seeing some positive news

 “The biggest surprise to me is how quickly sales have begun to pick back up after going to almost zero in April,” says McCoy. “We’re almost to 50 percent of last year’s June sales, and I’m super grateful!”

Lempa is proud of the retailers she works with and their “Gotta Get it Done” attitude, as she calls it. “Customers have shared with me how tired they are and how much harder they are working, but the best thing is their excitement about their businesses,” she adds.

“They’re telling me it’s reminding them of how it was when they first opened and how they are inspired and turned on by the challenge.”

 

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Megy Karydes

Megy Karydes is a marketing and communications consultant. She’s also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and working on a book about how businesses can better market themselves. Sign up to get her marketing tips every monthly at MegyKarydes.com.